My master’s supervisor talks to me once every six months and is uninterested in my research unless I have a half-written paper with a working model already. There are also no post-docs or assistants managing the students or providing alternative guidance. It is only a professor. And he has about five master’s students and PhD students each under his supervision.

Is this standard operating procedure? I thought I would have more guidance.

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    No. It is not normal. – Eppicurt Feb 3 '18 at 6:03
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    Definitely not normal .. you won't finish. change advisor! – Prof. Santa Claus Feb 3 '18 at 6:42
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    Who supports your work? Who gives you a direction for research? Please elaborate how you are supervised IN TOTAL. For my PhD, for example, I spend very little time with my professor but I am in close collaboration with one of his postdocs. – J-Kun Feb 3 '18 at 8:42
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    I added more details to my question. Basically, no one supports me in my work until the work is done. – guy Feb 3 '18 at 14:49
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    No I do not have a second supervisor. I never knew this was possible. – guy Feb 3 '18 at 17:39

No, this is not standard. One of the main purposes of a thesis is that you learn how to perform research. While there is some learning by doing, without supervision you are very likely to at least do one of the following:

  • misunderstand the task or the topic,

  • miss some important existing work when getting familiar with the field,

  • make mistakes that could easily be spotted by somebody experienced but may cost you a lot of time or make a lot of your work worthless,

  • focus on rather uninteresting aspects and miss interesting discoveries,

  • produce bad writing (and thus having to rewrite it entirely before submitting).

This is probably the first time you work on a larger subject. Nobody can expect you to do all these things right on yourself. And even if you do everything right naturally, proper guidance could make you better utilise your talent.

I thus recommend that you do (if you haven’t done it already):

  • Talk to other students or the student union to get an idea what exactly is common at your institution.

  • Talk to other students in your advisor’s group about their experience. Perhaps the others have the same problem and you can address it together.

  • Actively seek feedback from your advisor.

  • Consult with your examination rules and the responsible people at your department for ways to switch your advisor, get your advisor to do more advising (ideally anonymously), etc.

  • Thanks for the advice. I will try to be more proactive in my relationship with him. I will also reach out to other students to get their take on things. I just feel sometimes I spend hours looking into something that I have no clue if it is relevant or not. – guy Feb 3 '18 at 18:55
  • While I definitely support the advice given here, I also recommend the OP to thread very carefully. I have a friend who went through a similar situation as a PhD student and as soon as he approached his supervisor on this, thing slid downhill. Supervisor got gruntled and made his stay hell, and also made sure nobody else around would take him. – Scientist Feb 4 '18 at 5:09

I cannot state exactly how common this is because I'd need more experience. However I am a 3rd timer postdoc who took my PhD 8 years ago, and I have worked in 5 different labs in 3 distant countries. I know many people. I tell you this:

This is not acceptable. You are not in a good place.

After digesting this fact you must come up with a strategy and some plans. I have no idea of where you are, nor how things actually work at your institution.

I am currently in China, and from what I've seen and heard, around here such ambiance more common than it should, and a student will not find direct support out it. However if you're in some reputed traditional institution in Europe, perhaps you can find representative personnel like suggested by @Wrzprmft above.

The following facts should be considered:

  • Your "advisor" is waiting for you to feed his CV with data/papers;
  • Such kind of person is generally at an institution where this behaviour is allowed to continue;
  • Mind that a Master student is typically seen to have little "value" and power by a supervisor and institutions;
  • Depending on your personal plans, you may be able to find a much better life elsewhere.

I recommend you decide whether you're willing to stay or leave.

If you decide to stay, consider getting another advisor (if this is locally tolerated/possible). Otherwise face the fact that you'll have to find your own way and survive & manipulate your pseudo-advisor until the end of your course (2y?). Usually if they get what they want (some data and papers) the maggot will stay out of your path. If you're the kind of independent researcher, this may well prove quite good for you, but chances are you'll come up with bad quality data and crappy manuscripts. And perhaps become as good as your "boss" in the future...

If you decide to walk out, take advantage of the fact that this guy is just sitting, and use the local structure and contacts to probe your options. It will be easier to approach (carefully) better prospective advisors and contractors elsewhere through your institutional address. Think about career options (industry, other fields), take some online courses on transferable skills. As soon as you've made your choice or things go sour (e.g. you're caught looking elsewhere) find the smoothest way out of this trap.

Good luck.

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